I used to hear the words ‘road trip’ and a slight shiver went down my spine. Back in the mid-80s, family road trips comprised of my father driving a hulking grey Volvo while my mother tried to decipher French roads signs which seemed to send us in endless circles. The Provençal furnace of summer was only momentarily abated through the joys of a semi damp wet wipe. Ultimately great times – but never to be repeated, thank you!
Then, a few years ago I had the chance to spend a month in New Zealand and I cautiously opted for a car journey with friends as this offered the chance to discover the charms of this magnificent country at our own pace. An hour in and I was sold. So finding myself in Victoria, Australia, and with one of the world’s most iconic road journeys on the doorstep (The Great Ocean Road), I simply had to get behind the wheel.
The view from The Great Ocean Road
My journey started on the outskirts of Melbourne, on a highway which led me south to Geelong, (Victoria’s second-largest city) and then to the pretty town of Queenscliff, dotted with historic fishermen’s cottages and lighthouses. Rushing into view, a great swathe of golden beach lay ahead, a few brave surfers appearing as tiny dark specs amongst the great foaming, crashing waves. The road then took a more gentle approach, winding along the coastline towards Apollo Bay, a town on the edge of the Otway Ranges well worth spending a night at.
VW Camper Van on the side of the road
The road now took a dramatic approach, tightly hugging the steep cliffs. On one side a classic VW camper van was pulled up against the side of the road, a waterfall cascading beside it. On the other side the road plunged away in a sheer drop to the ocean below. Rounding a tight hairpin I spotted a spout of white out to sea. Whales migrate along this part of the coastline from winter through to spring and this was the tell-tale sign of a pod of southern right whales. The back of my neck prickled with excitement, how lucky I was to have witnessed this! As twilight approached a magical golden sheen was cast across the ocean and through this ethereal light I could just make out the shape of The Great Ocean Road’s most renowned site, the ancient stack formations of the Twelve Apostles. The wind, towering cliffs and jagged rocks around this part of the coast have been the final resting place for more than 160 ships, giving rise to the name Shipwreck Coast, and I could now see why.
Further down the Shipwreck Coast I found Oscars Waterfront Hotel in the historic coastal town of Port Fairy, one of Victoria’s earliest settled coastal villages. I received a thoroughly warm welcome and was escorted to my riverfront room. In the morning I woke to perfect blue skies and pretty views over the Moyne River. I headed down to the riverfront terrace where the breakfast was delicious and I watched the locals preparing their boats amongst the moorings.
Revitalised, I drove north of Port Fairy, turning away from the coast and towards the looming Grampians mountain range. As I approached the hamlet of Dunkeld, ancient gum trees with shimmering silver bark stood sentry to the town. Stopping here on the edge of the Grampians I took in some of the most spectacular scenery in Australia, Mount Abrupt, the highest peak in the southern Grampians towered over the town and I’d heard the perfect place to enjoy the spectacular view was from the The Old Bakery. This institution has been serving the locals since 1887, so I decided to join them and pulled up a chair outside to enjoy a hearty plate of local meats and cheese with a generous serving of freshly baked sourdough bread.
Another shot of the Grampians
The drive from Dunkeld to Halls gap was exhilarating. Crossing over the boulder strewn escarpments of the Grampian mountain range felt like a million miles from Melbourne’s towering sky scrapers. The twists, hairpin turns, pinnacles and bluffs were almost prehistoric. Then I descended dramatically into the natural amphitheatre of Wartook Valley with its rambling farms, rolling pasture, mountain views and mobs of kangaroos.
My home for tonight was lovely Meringa Springs. With just ten guests staying at any one time, this is very much like staying with family. There is no degustation menu, just good home cooked food – locally sourced. A homely dining room provided spectacular views over the property’s wildflower meadows. As evening approached I headed out for a stroll and was soon surrounded by countless grazing kangaroos and cockatoos which had flown down from the mountains to roost in the ancient gums.
A kangaroo in the grounds of Meringa Springs
Suitably restored by a delicious breakfast I started out on my journey from Wartook to Daylesford. Iconic yellow signs with black kangaroos signalled that this part of Victoria is teeming with wildlife. Five minutes into my journey I spied something ahead in the road – black, spiky and with legs. An echidna! What a treat, I’d never seen one in the wild before. As I approached he dashed into a huge hollow log and curled up in a protective ball, his tiny legs dangling in mid-air. The road ahead was deserted, just me and a friendly wallaby grazing by the side of the road.
Close up of the echidna!
In the town of Great Western, I found some of Victoria’s best wineries. The original Seppelt vineyard was established in 1865, and in the last century more than three kilometres of underground tunnels were dug by miners for sparkling wine maturation. At the tiny historic Best’s winery the same family have been running operations since 1866, making it one of Australia’s oldest family-owned wineries – a time machine to the settler era.
For lunch the owners of Best’s recommended stopping for lunch at The Three Troupers pantry in Beaufort – just thirty minutes down the road. This microbrewery was a real find, a country style café. Deer antlers decorated the walls and comfy sofas were scattered around on which to indulge in homemade pork pies and scones with clotted cream.
Arriving into Daylesford in the heart of Victoria’s spa country, I found an old gold rush town that has morphed into an eclectic mix of artists’ studios, cafes, boutique day spas and holistic healing centres. Lake House, the town’s most luxurious hotel and my accommodation for the night, was founded in the 1980s and is still run by the same family. The grounds were scattered with fruits trees and edible gardens whose wild damsons, Winter Nealis pears, quinces and yellow crab apples feature in the restaurants fabulous desserts. Larrisa, daughter of the owner, introduced me to one of the resident kookaburras who seemed absolutely delighted to be hand fed a couple of cashews from the bar. Through decades of hard work Lake House now boasts one of Australia’s top restaurants with Two Chefs hats and has a New York Wine Spectator award winning wine list of some 10,000 bottles, as well as being renowned as a destination spa.
A room at the Lake House hotel
With such a melting pot of artistic and culinary talent, I drew my road trip to an end the next morning by exploring the Dalysfords delicious attractions. First on the list was the sublime Convent Gallery which overlooks the town and is a three level haven of the regions fine art which spills out through a historic 19th century mansion.
Just up from the gallery on the side of an ancient, extinct volcano and now the town’s botanical garden, I discovered marvellous Wombat Hill House Café, a mecca for simple, locally-sourced food. Here cornflower blue shelves are laden with an assortment of homemade chutneys, jams, olive oil, as well as freshly baked cakes and pastries – all enjoyed on a comfy sofa next to a roaring fire.
Wombat Hill House Café
Driving out of Daylesford I found the pretty gold rush town of Tretham on the edge of the Wombat Forest. Larrisa had told me about a specialist historic bakery called Red Beard Bakery. Their potato bread was absolutely divine and was washed down with some freshly ground coffee. I just wish I had the time to take part in one of their sourdough baking courses but unfortunately for me the city was calling. I filled up the car’s tank one more time and headed off for a new adventure, this time on the metropolitan streets of Melbourne.